contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: shamanism

BOOK REVIEW: A STORY WAITING TO PIERCE YOU

Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.

Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.

Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.

Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo –  understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.

Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.

Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”

A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.

(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

DREAMING THE MAGICAL CHILD

I often experience winter as a time of powerful dreams, and I had one yesterday night. It moved through three phases, ending with the image of a magical child as guide.

First phase: I am in a crowded place in a sizeable town. I am apparently in charge of two or three young children – close relatives, by the feel of it, though I am not clear on the specific relationships. I do know that I am of the grandparental generation. Suddenly, I notice them running off towards a stretch of park and woodland. I need to catch up and keep them safe.

Second phase: As I mobilise and follow, I am not catching up as rapidly as I had hoped. I notice that the terrain is wetter and rougher than fits with the initial image. The location feels quite different. I may have to cross water and am I not dressed for it for this eventuality. I assume that the children find this easier than I do, and I have confidence that they are OK. I am less sure about myself. This pursuit is a bit of a stretch.

Third phase: I halt at a riverbank. The boy – only one child, the others somehow no longer present or relevant to this dream – has stripped to the waist and taken like a fish to the water, swimming strongly against the current. He seems to be older than when I last looked. I have a moment of panic and dismay before leaping in after him. Fortunately for me, a sort of backpack I have been wearing turns into a comically inflatable throne. There is no doubt now that the boy knows what he is doing and is purposefully leading me upstream towards the source of the river. Paddling with my hands and arms, my task now is to follow as best I can. As I start following in earnest, I wake up.

The ‘I’ of the first phase is apparently in charge, yet vague and inattentive. Only action by the children gets me to notice and pay attention, though I continue to sport an air of responsible authority, with the felt need to keep the children safe. In the second phase ‘I’ am different, becoming aware of a more rugged environment and feeling challenged by it. I am more positive about the children’s capacity, and less so about my own. The third phase is different again. Halting at a riverbank, I recognise the boy as a version of the archetypical magical child, who naturally finds the sacred in all things, connecting us to a larger life. He is numinously present in this phase of the dream. He is the leader. I am the follower. My means of locomotion is clumsy and absurd. But at least I have one, and I do follow. The constructed ego has a significant part to play, it seems, on this journey, but not the leading role it has imagined for itself. Once I start ‘following in earnest’, I am free to wake up.

At the outer world level, culturally, perhaps the wisdom of age includes recognising and making space for the wisdom of youth. In Irish myth, the elderly poet, shaman and sage Finnegas spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. When he finally caught the salmon, he asked his apprentice Demne to cook it. As he worked, the boy burned his thumb and instinctively sucked it – and so it was he, not his teacher, who became imbued with the salmon’s wisdom. Finnegas graciously gave Demne the whole salmon to eat, renaming him Fionn. Fionn went on to become the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool).

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

APPROACHING THE YEAR’S TURN

We have a small patch of garden at the front of our house, remodelled only a week ago. It has a modestly zen pagan reference, with just a hint of spiral. In the bigger picture, where I live, we are rapidly approaching the turn from an inward to an outer arc of life energy. The Winter Solstice is very close.

I’m not experiencing deep stillness this year. It feels more like an extended pause for breath – a time for taking stock and regrouping. I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels.

I have checked out older resources which have been neglected for awhile. One of these is the popular and respected Wildwood Tarot. I bought it years ago but didn’t much engage. Now its time has come round, prompted by an impulsive consultation. It happened in the early hours of a recent morning, at a rare time of sleeplessness. I spent several hours getting to know it. Here it is enough to say that I am drawn by its strong wheel of the year orientation, by its choice of imagery for the major trumps in particular, and by its own focus on resiliency.

I am going to live the year from 22 December with heightened attention to the wheel of the year, and with this resource as my companion. My current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it. In the meantime I enjoy the front garden and await the return of the sun.

Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

BOOK REVIEW: GREENING THE PARANORMAL

I recommend this book to anyone concerned with deep ecology, animism, or the kinds of phenomena we describe as ‘paranormal’. It opens with two substantial framing pieces, a foreword by Paul Devereux and an introductory chapter by editor Jack Hunter. These are followed by 16 chapters from a diverse range of contributors, mostly seeking to combine direct witness with a workable form of academic analysis. To an extent this book is a story of how to face this difficult challenge. Very early, in his foreword, Paul Devereux shows how the challenge can come from the ‘phenomena’ themselves.

“We were trying to geographically map generations of old accounts of fairy paths we had uncovered in the verbatim records of University College Dublin. Suddenly, standing in the grass, there was a figure, between two and three feet tall. It was anthropomorphic and fully three dimensional (as we could clearly determine while we were drifting slowly past. It had sprung its appearance out of nowhere, and it caught my wife’s and my own transfixed attentions simultaneously.

The figure was comprised of a jumble of very dark green tones, as if composed of a tight dense tangle of foliage rather like the stand of woodland a hundred yards or so beyond the sward of grass. It didn’t seem to quite have a face, just a head with deep set eyes appearing out of the green tangle. It presented a distinctly forbidding appearance. As we crawled past in our car, the figure started to turn its head in our direction, but then vanish.

“Charla called out, ‘Oh, shit!’ We looked at each other, both of us wide-eyed and thoroughly disconcerted. ‘You saw that!’ I asked rhetorically. The whole episode had lasted for only about half a minute or so, but it was unequivocally an actual. if transient, objective observation.”

The running inquiry question throughout the book is, what do we make of experiences like this, if we are determined to honour rather than dismiss them? Devereux senses four major themes in the suggested ‘greening of the paranormal’ in our time. The first is animism, the ‘Big Step for our culture to take’: the sense that the elements of the non-human world are animate in some way – rocks, rivers, soil, as well as plants and living organisms. This involves a deep relationship with the land beyond utility and subsistence. The second theme is the vision quest, a wilderness journey which is more about paying attention and being open to what unfolds, rather than posing questions. The third concerns the ‘liminal’ places that seem to support our breaking through into other-world realms or altered mind states. The fourth is inter-species communion with the animal and plant kingdoms. In the language used by Jack Hunter, we find ourselves dealing with a “profoundly mindful, sentient and agentic world” and the potential re-opening of lost forms of communication and connection.

Many of the contributors believe that we are unlikely to get through the climate crisis if we continue to ignore dimensions of experience from which our cultural filters have exiled us. Some of them live or work in countries that have been colonised by Europeans, but where pockets of traditional indigenous wisdom remain. They recognise that in some cases there are invitations to share in this. There are also concerns about appropriation and the dynamics of the researcher/subject relationship. There is a questioning of the word ‘shamanism’ as currently used – and arguably over-extended and suspect.

This book does not read like a novel. Although I have read it all, there were two or three chapters which didn’t speak to me. Others were riveting. I see it as an excellent book to own and keep for reference. The foreword and first chapter each stand alone and I recommend reading both of them. The other chapters can be cherry picked according to taste or need. Overall there’s a strong invitation to wake up to the aspects of world, life and experience that are being pointed to. The book suggests that they are needed for our personal, social and global healing.

 

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

BEING IN TRANSIT

If I ask myself, ‘where is my spiritual centre?’ I do not find an answer within any named tribe. Spiritual friendships, communities of practice and generic webs of connection can all help, and I hope that I give something back. But my path is fundamentally solitary. Perhaps even the notion of having a centre is limiting.

I’ve learned a lot from Druidry. Partly thanks to Druid practice, I experience myself as more fully alive on a living Earth. I honour the wheel of the year as it turns in my locality. In Druidry, I’ve been enabled to explore a contemplative dimension within Earth spirituality. I have also connected with ancestral threads I might otherwise have neglected. But I’m not a polytheist Pagan and I have never felt attracted to Shamanism. I’ve learned from Buddhist tradition too. I’m a meditator. I have a deepened sense of interconnectedness and the call to kindness that goes with it. But I have not adopted the four noble truths as the basis of my path, and I do not seek refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I am grateful for my connections to Druidry and Buddhism and will continue to take an interest in their literature. I also sense that, with certain understandings and practices now ingrained, their active roles in my life are over.

My creative edge has for some time been elsewhere. I have been working with the insight that perceptions, apparently of the world, do not establish the existence of a world, but only of perceiving (or awareness, or being). Sensations, apparently of a body, do not establish the existence of embodiment, but only of sensing (or awareness, or being). Thoughts, apparently of a mind, do not establish the existence of a mind, but only of thinking (or awareness, or being). This can seem destructively sceptical, even solipsistic. Yet for many people it signals the possibility of a ‘more than’ (or awareness, or being), rather than a dissociated ‘less than’. Mind, body and world can return enhanced rather than diminished by this kind of exercise, with a sense of a ‘not I not other than I’ connection with primordial awareness or being.

This is the basic stance of nondualist traditions, ancient and modern. In Indian culture, the stripping down and reduction to nothingness is sometimes identified as Vedantic, and the subsequent return and flowering in everything as Tantric. In the Gospel of St. Thomas, a Christian Gnostic text, Yeshua (Jesus) says: “I come from the One who is Openness” and the aspiration of disciples is to make themselves “the abode of Openness, a house that welcomes the breeze, a body that has become transparent, like a crystal flooded with light”. Here, a metaphor concerned with transparency emphasizes power and energy rather than vulnerability and exposure.

I am not a member of a nondualist group, or a Christian Gnostic. But I am moved by these spiritual currents. I am in dialogue with them. I think that ‘being in dialogue’ is a good place to be. For me, certainly now, it has more integrity than formal membership or adherence to a system.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

SWEENEY’S SHAPESHIFT

Two extracts from Sweeney Astray, Seamus Heaney’s version of the medieval Irish work Buile Suibhne. Reflecting a time of religious change in Ireland, the first beautifully describes a shapeshifting transformation whilst making it the result of a curse. In the second, there is at least a suggestion that it might, rather, have been another route to holiness. Meanwhile Christian priests have taken on Druid powers and roles, – non-canonical forms of cursing and binding, the support of animal allies and directing peace negotiations.

“There was a certain Ronan Finn in Ireland, a holy and distinguished cleric. He was ascetic and pious, an active missionary, a real Christian soldier. He was a real servant of God, one who punished his body for the good of his soul, a shield against vice and the devil’s attacks, a gentle, genial, busy man.

“One time when Sweeney was king of Dal-Arie, Ronan was there marking out a church called Killaney. Sweeney was in a place where he heard the clink of Ronan’s bell as he was marking out the site, so he asked his people what the sound was.

“It is Ronan Finn, the son of Bearach, they said. He is marking out a church in your territory and what you hear is the ringing of his bell.

“Sweeney was suddenly angered and rushed away to hunt the cleric from his church. Eorann, his wife, a daughter of Conn of Ciannacht, tried to hold him back and snatched at the fringe of his crimson cloak, but the sliver cloak-fastener broke at the shoulder and sprang across the room. She got the cloak alright, but Sweeney had bolted, stark naked, and soon landed with Ronan.

“He found the cleric glorifying the King of heaven and earth, in full voice in front of his psalter, a beautiful illuminated book. Sweeney grabbed the book and flung it into the cold depths of a lake nearby, where it sank without trace. Then he took hold of Ronan and was dragging him out through the church when he heard a cry of alarm. The call came from a servant of Congal Claon’s who had come with orders from Congal to summon Sweeney to battle at Moira. He gave a full report of the business and Sweeney went off directly with the servant, leaving the cleric distressed at the loss of his psalter and smarting from such contempt and abuse.

“A day and a night passed and then an otter rose out of the lake with the psalter and brought it to Ronan, completely unharmed. Ronan gave thanks to God for that miracle, and cursed Sweeney.

….

“After that, Ronan came to Moira to make peace between Donal, so of Aodh, and Congal Claon, son of Scannlan, but he did not succeed. Nevertheless, the cleric’s presence was taken as a seal and guarantee of the rules of battle; they made agreements that no killing would be allowed except between those hours they had set for beginning and ending the fight each day. Sweeney, however, would continually violate every peace and truce which the cleric had ratified, slaying a man each day before the sides were engaged and slaying another each evening when the combat was finished. Then, on the day fixed for the great battle, Sweeney was in the field before everyone else.

“He was dressed like this:

next his white skin, the shimmer of silk;

and his satin girdle around him;

and his tunic, that reward of service

and gift of fealty from Congal,

was like this –

crimson, close-woven,

bordered in gemstones and gold,

a rustle of sashes and loops,

the studded silver gleaming,

the slashed hem embroidered in points.

He had an iron-shod spear in his hand,

a shield of mottled horn on his back,

a gold-hilted sword at his side.

“He marched out like that until he encountered Ronan with eight psalmists from his community. They were blessing the armies, sprinkling them with holy water, and they sprinkled Sweeney with the rest. Sweeney thought they had done it just to mock him, so he lifted one of his spears, hurled it, and killed one of Ronan’s psalmists in a single cast. He made another throw with the second spear at the cleric himself, so that it pierced the bell that hung from his neck, and the shaft sprang off into the air. Ronan burst out:

“My curse fall on Sweeney

for his great offence.

His smooth spear profaned

my bell’s holiness,

cracked bell hoarding grace

since the first saint rang it –

it will curse you to the trees,

bird-brain among branches.

Just as the spear shaft broke

and sprang into the air

may the mad spasms strike

you, Sweeney, forever.

….

“There were great shouts as the herded armies clashed and roared out their war cries like stags. When Sweeney heard these howls and echoes assumed into the travelling clouds and amplified through the vaults of space, he looked up and he was possessed by a dark rending energy.

“His brain convulsed,

his mind split open.

Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings

and launchings came over him,

he staggered and flapped desperately,

he was revolted by the thought of known places

and dreamed strange migrations.

His fingers stiffened,

his feet scuffled and flurried,

his heart was startled,

his senses were mesmerized,

his sight was bent,

the weapons fell from his hands

and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion

like a bird of the air.

And Ronan’s curse was fulfilled.

“His feet skimmed over the grasses so lightly he never unsettled a dewdrop and all that day he was a hurtling visitant of plain and field, bare mountain and bog, thicket and marshland, and there was no hill and hollow, no plantation or forest in Ireland that he did not appear in that day; until he reached Ros Bearaigh in Glen Arkin, where he hid in a yew tree in the glen.”

 

The second extract, where the Church is represented by the friendlier Moling, describes the end of Sweeney’s life – still as a wandering bird.

 

“At last Sweeney arrived where Moling lived, the place that is known as St. Mullin’s. Just then Moling was addressing himself to Kevin’s psalter and reading from it to his students. Sweeney presented himself at the brink of the well and began to eat watercress.

“‘Aren’t you the early bird?’ said the cleric, and continued, with Sweeney answering, afterwards.

Moling: So, you would steal a march on us, up and breakfasting so early!

Sweeney: Not so very early, priest. Terce has come in Rome already.

Moling: And what knowledge has a fool about the hour of terce in Rome?

Sweeney: The Lord makes me His oracle, from sunrise till sun’s going down.

Moling: Then speak to us of hidden things. Give us tidings of the Lord.

Sweeney: Not I. But if you are Moling, you are gifted with the Word.

Moling: Mad as you are, you are sharp-witted. How do you know my face and name?

Sweeney: In my days astray, I ested in this enclosure many a time

…..

Moling: Look at this leaf of Kevin’s book, the coilings on this psalter’s page.

Sweeney: The yew leaf coils round my nook in Glen Bolcain’s foliage.

Moling: This churchyard, this colour, is there no pleasure here for you?

Sweeney: My pleasure is great and other: the hosting that day at Moira.

Moling: I will sing Mass, make a hush of high celebration.

Sweeney: Leaping an ivy bush is a higher calling even.

Moling: My ministry is only toil, the weak and the strong both exhaust me.

Sweeney: I toil to a bed on the chill steeps of Benevenagh

Moling: When your death comes, will it be death by water, in holy ground?

Sweeney: It will be early when I die. One of your herds will make the wound.

“You are more than welcome here, Sweeney, said Moling, for you are fated to live and die here. You shall leave the history of your adventures with us and receive a Christian burial in a churchyard. Therefore, said Moling, no matter how far you range over Ireland, day by day, I bind you to return to me every evening so that I may record your story.”

 

When Sweeney is indeed mortally wounded by one of the communities’ herdsmen, the rest of the community feel anger and grief.

 

“Enna McBracken was ringing the bell for prime at the door of the churchyard and saw what had happened. He spoke this poem:

“This is sad, herd, this was deliberate,

Outrageous, sickening and sinful.

Whoever struck here will live to regret

Killing the king, the saint, the holy fool.

…..

My heart is breaking with pity for him.

He was a man of fame and high birth.

He was a king, he was a madman.

His grave will be a hallowing of earth.”

 

Sweeney lives long enough to confess and take the sacrament. “He received Christ’s body and thanked God for having received it and after that was anointed by the clerics”. Moling who “with holy viaticum” has “limed him for the Holy Ghost”, also expresses affection for Sweeney and reveals that he, too, has learned something.

 

“The man who is buried here was cherished indeed, said Moling. How happy we were when we walked and talked along his path. And how I loved to watch him yonder at the well. It is called the Madman’s Well because he would often eat its watercress and drink its water, and so it is named after him. And every other place he used to haunt will be cherished too.

“Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain

I learned to love it, too. He’ll miss

The fresh streams tumbling down,

The green beds of watercress.

He would drink his sup of water from

The well yonder we have called

The Madman’s Well; now his name

Keeps brimming in its sandy cold”.

 

Seamus Heaney Sweeney Astray London: Faber & Faber, 1983

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